Margaret of Anjou (March 23, 1430 – August 25, 1482) was the wife of King Henry VI of England; the second daughter of René I the Good, Duke of Anjou, and Isabella of Lorraine.
Margaret was a major figure in the series of dynastic civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, at times even personally leading the Lancaster faction. Because of her husband”s frequent bouts of insanity, Margaret effectively took his place in governing the country. It was she who demanded of the Great Council in May 1455 that the York faction, led by Richard, Duke of York, be expelled, thus igniting a spark of civil conflict that lasted more than thirty years, destroyed the old nobility of England and caused the deaths of thousands, including her only son Edward, killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, and making Margaret herself a prisoner of the Yorkists. In 1475 she was ransomed by her cousin, King Louis XI of France. Marguerite went to France, where she lived as a poor relation of the king and died at the age of 52.
Marguerite was born at Pont-à-Mousson, Duchy of Lorraine, an imperial feudal estate in eastern France, ruled by a younger branch of French kings, the Valois-Anjou. Marguerite was the second daughter and fifth child of René of Anjou and Isabelle, Duchess of Lorraine. She had five full-blooded brothers and four full-blooded sisters, as well as three half-brothers and sisters from her father”s relationships with his mistresses. Her father, known locally as “the good King René,” was Duke of Anjou and titular king of Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem; he was spoken of as a man “who had many crowns but no kingdoms. Margaret was baptized at Thule, Lorraine, and in the care of her father”s old nurse, Theophania la Maginet, the girl spent her early years in the castle of Tarascon on the Rhone River in southern France and in the old royal palace at Capua near Naples in the kingdom of Sicily. Marguerite”s mother took care of the girl”s education and arranged for her to take lessons with Antoine de La Salle, who taught her brothers. As a child, Marguerite was known as la petite créature.
On April 23, 1445, at Titchfield, Hampshire, Margaret married King Henry VI of England, who was eight years older than his bride. Henry then claimed the kingdom of France and controlled various parts of northern France. Henry”s uncle, Charles VII, who also claimed the crown of France, agreed to Marguerite”s marriage to his rival on the condition that he give Charles the earldom of Maine and the duchy of Anjou instead of the usual dowry. The English government, fearing an extremely negative reaction, kept the treaty secret from English society.
Margaret was 15 years old when she was crowned May 30, 1445, in Westminster Abbey by John Stafford, Archbishop of Canterbury. She was described as a beautiful “woman already: both passionate and proud and strong-willed.” Those who foresaw a future return of English claims to French territories believed that she had already understood her duty to defend the interests of the crown. Apparently, Margherita inherited the indomitability of her mother, who fought to satisfy her husband”s claims to the Kingdom of Naples, and of her paternal grandmother, Yolanda of Aragon, who in fact ruled Anjou with a “male hand”, keeping order in the province and guarding it from England. Thus, through the example of her family and her flamboyant personality, she was quite capable of becoming the “protector of the Crown.”
Thomas More claimed that Elizabeth Woodville, the future queen, was synonymous with “Isabella Grey,” the young maid of honor of Margaret who served under her in 1445; modern historians have noted that there were several women at Margaret”s court named Elizabeth or Isabella Grey and among them there are few more likely candidates than Elizabeth Woodville, who did not receive the Grey name until about 1452.
The birth of a son
Henry, who was more interested in religion and doctrine than in military matters, was not a successful ruler. He became king at just under nine months of age, and so from the beginning his actions were under the control of the regents. When Henry married Margaret, his mental state was already precarious and the birth of their only son Edward in 1453 finally undermined the king”s health. Rumors began to circulate that Henry was unable to produce a child and that the new Prince of Wales was the result of adultery. Many speculated that the prince”s father might be Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, or James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire; both had been staunch allies of Margaret.
Though aggressively partial and of a volatile nature, Margaret shared her husband”s love of learning through her cultural upbringing and became the patron and founder of King”s College, Cambridge University.
Feud with the Duke of York
After moving from London to the luxurious palace at Greenwich, Margaret was busy caring for her young son and showed no signs of overt aggression until she believed her husband was threatened with overthrow by the ambitious Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who, to Margaret”s horror, had been appointed regent during Henry”s mental incapacity in 1453-1454. The duke had a not unreasonable claim to the English throne, and by the end of his regency there were many powerful nobles and relatives ready to support his claim. The Duke of York was powerful; Henry”s advisers were corrupt; Henry himself was gullible, pliable, and increasingly unstable; Margaret was defiantly unpopular, morose, and determined to preserve the English crown for her posterity. Yet at least one scholar cites the possible source of Lancaster”s fall not so much as York”s ambition, but rather Margaret”s hostility toward him and her excessive surrounding of herself with unpopular allies. Nevertheless, Queen Margaret was a powerful force in the world of politics. King Henry was turning into plasticine in her hands when Margaret wanted something done.
Margaret”s biographer, Helen Maurer, however, disagrees with historians who have timed the beginning of the feud between the queen and York to the moment when the latter became regent. She suggests that the mutual enmity arose some two years after these events, in 1455, as a result of the first battle of St Albans, when Margaret began to perceive York as having challenged the authority of the king. The biographer bases this conclusion on a reasonable examination of an image of Margaret giving gifts; it showed that it cost Margaret great difficulty to demonstrate equally her favor to both York and Somerset in the early 1450s Maurer also claims that Margaret seemed to accept York”s regency, and argues that there is no substantial evidence for the spread of longstanding rumors that she was responsible for excluding Yorkists from the Grand Council after Henry”s restoration
But historian Paul Murray Kendall later argued that Margaret”s allies, Somerset and William de La Paul, then Earl of Suffolk, had little trouble convincing the queen that York, until then one of Henry VI”s most trusted advisers, was responsible for her unpopularity and was already too powerful to be trusted. Margaret not only persuaded Henry to recall York as governor in France and exile him to Ireland, but she repeatedly tried to arrange his assassination during the duke”s journeys to and from Ireland in 1449 and 1450. Somerset shared Suffolk”s responsibility for the secret surrender of Maine in 1448, and then for the subsequent disastrous losses in the rest of Normandy in 1449, dragging Margaret and Henry”s court into mass riots, magnate rebellions; leading to the prosecution, conviction and execution of two of Margaret”s strongest allies. It also made a battle to the death between Margaret and the House of York inevitable, and Margaret was forced to declare Richard”s popularity dangerous. Richard York, safely returned from Ireland in 1450, confronted Henry and was returned as a trusted advisor. Soon afterwards Henry agreed to convene a parliament to decide the question of reforms. When parliament met, the demands proved more than unacceptable to Margaret: not only were both her minions, Somerset and Suffolk, dismissed for criminally inept leadership in French affairs and subversion of justice, but charges were also brought against Suffolk (who was already duke at the time) that he had acted contrary to the king”s will for the Duke of York. Moreover, the demands for reform stated that the Duke of York should be recognized as the king”s first counselor, and the Speaker of the Commons, perhaps more zealously than wisely, even suggested that Richard, Duke of York, should be recognized as heir to the throne. Within a few months, however, Margaret regained control of her husband, parliament was dissolved, the careless speaker was thrown into prison, and Richard of York retired to Wales.
In 1457 the kingdom was once again in turmoil when it was discovered that Pierre de Brézé, a powerful French general and follower of Marguerite, had landed on the English coast and burned the town of Sandwich. As leader of the French forces (they numbered 4,000 men) from Honfleur, he purposefully took advantage of the chaos in England. The mayor of the town, John Drury, was killed in this raid. After this event, it became a tradition, which still exists today, for the mayor of Sandwich to wear black mourning clothes. Marguerite, associated with de Brese, became the subject of offensive rumors and vulgar ballads. Public indignation was so great that Margaret, with great reluctance, was forced to give the Duke of York”s relative, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, already then captain of Calais, the authority to defend the sea for three years.
The feud between the York and Lancaster factions soon escalated into armed conflict. In May 1455, five months after Henry VI had recovered from an attack of mental illness and Richard of York”s regency had ended, Margaret sought the exclusion of the York faction from the Great Council. The Council called for a gathering of supporters in Leicester to defend the king “against his enemies.” York was apparently ready for conflict and soon moved from the south to meet the Lancaster army marching from the north. The Lancasters suffered a crushing defeat at the first Battle of St. Albans on May 22, 1455. Somerset was killed, Wiltshire fled the battlefield, and King Henry was taken prisoner by the victorious York.
In 1459 hostilities resumed at the Battle of Bloor Heath, where James Touchet, Baron Audley, was defeated by the York army under Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury.
While Margaret sought to increase further support for the Lancaster faction in Scotland, her commander-in-chief, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, won a major victory for her at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460, defeating the combined forces of the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury. Both were beheaded and their heads placed on the gates of York. Despite the popular belief that it was Margaret who ordered the execution, she could not have done so because she was in Scotland at the time of the battle. This was followed by her victory at the second Battle of St Albans on February 17, 1461, in which Margaret was directly involved. In this battle she defeated the York forces led by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and returned her husband from captivity. It was after this battle that Margaret committed a blatant act of revenge, ordering the execution of two Yorkist prisoners of war, William Bonville, Baron Bonville, and Sir Thomas Kyriele, who had guarded King Henry during the battle. The king promised immunity to these two knights, but Margaret ordered their beheading. It is alleged that she represented the men at the trial, which was presided over by her son. “Just son,” she supposedly asked. – What death must these knights die?” Prince Edward replied that their heads should be cut off, despite the king”s requests for clemency.
The Lancastrian army was defeated at the Battle of Towton on March 29, 1461 by the son of the late Duke of York, Edward of England, who overthrew King Henry and proclaimed himself king. Margaret was determined to recover her son”s inheritance and fled with him to Wales and later Scotland. Seeking a way into France, she made an ally of her cousin, King Louis XI of France, and at his initiative Margaret allowed Edward”s former supporter, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, whose relationship with his former friend had soured over Edward”s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, and he now wished to avenge the loss of his political influence. Warwick”s youngest daughter, Anne, married Margaret”s son Edward, Prince of Wales, to cement the union. Margaret insisted that Warwick return to England to prove his commitment to her before she would follow him. He did so, restoring Henry VI to the throne for a brief period on October 3, 1470.
Defeat at Tewkesbury
By the time Margaret, her son and daughter-in-law were ready to follow Warwick back to England, luck was again on York”s side: Warwick was defeated and killed by the returning King Edward IV at the Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471. Margaret was forced to lead her own army into battle at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, in which Lancaster forces were defeated and her seventeen-year-old son was killed. The circumstances of Edward”s death have never been clear: it is not known whether he was killed in action or executed after the battle by the Duke of Clarence. Margaret had earned a reputation as an aggressive and cruel person over the past ten years, but after her defeat at Tewkesbury and the death of her only son, she was completely shattered. After she was captured by William Stanley at the end of the battle, Margaret was imprisoned by order of King Edward. She was sent first to Wallingford Castle and then transferred to the safer Tower; in 1472 Margaret was placed in the care of her former maid of honor Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, where she remained until she was ransomed by Louis XI in 1475.
Marguerite lived in France for the next seven years as a poor relative of the king. She died at Anjou on August 25, 1482, at the age of 52. Marguerite”s body was buried next to her parents in the cathedral of Angers, but during the French Revolution the cathedral was looted, as was Marguerite”s tomb.
Many letters written by Margaret during her marriage to the king have survived. One was written to the coronation in London because of injustice done to tenants at Enfield, which was part of her dowry. There is another letter that Margaret wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The letters are collected in a book edited by Cecile Monroe, which was published by the Camden Society in 1863. Margaret usually began her letters with the words By the Quene.
After fleeing to France, Margherita took refuge at the Burgundian court, where she told the story of her troubles and wanderings to the court chronicler Georges Chatellain, who, touched by her misfortunes, dedicated his treatise, Le Temple de Boccace (The Temple of Bocaccio), to her.
Margaret is one of the protagonists in Shakespeare”s trilogy about Henry VI and the play Richard III. She is also the protagonist of Giacomo Meyerbeer”s opera of the same name and a number of literary works:
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